and I quote

april 2009

click here for permalink April 29, 2009

So I've been doing this weird thing for a few months now, since I watched an authors@Google Talk with Max Barry, the author of Company, and Syrup. It's called NationStates, a "nation simulation game" loosely based on his novel Jennifer Government, which I haven't read. The premise is: "You create your own country, fashioned after your own ideals, and care for its people."

ArgentinaPalauYou pick your name, your motto and your flag from a list of existing flags (although my favorite, Palau, is on the list, the color is totally wrong so I was forced to go with my second favorite flag, that of Argentina). You can also design your own flag and upload it which I have not done; frankly, not out of laziness but rather a vague concern that this would represent a step over the line into Geekdom that I just can't quite justify.

My nation is called The Rogue Nation of Virgontina; the "Rogue Nation" part was selected from an exhaustive menu of choices, including "Democratic Republic," "Imperial Sultanate," "Dominion," "Queendom," etc. etc. (Okay, I know what you're thinking about Geekdom but... Whatever.) The vital stats are below:

  • National Motto: "Via Veritas Vita"
  • Category: Civil Rights Lovefest
  • Civil Rights: Superb
  • Economy: Weak
  • Political Freedoms: Excellent

Those last four change periodically based on your decisions; my has previously been categorized as a "Scandinavian Liberal Paradise" and a "New York Times Democracy." But here's where the fun starts. Now you get to test out all your ideas about how a perfect society should be run — or see how quickly you can unleash chaos on your innocent, imaginary citizenry — that's up to you. Every weekday — or every day, depending on your settings — your "Parliament" has a new "issue" and your decisions shape the way your country develops. The two paragraphs below gradually change to reflect long-term trends like population growth, economy, major industries and the overall flavor of the country.

"The Rogue Nation of Virgontina is a huge, socially progressive nation, notable for its absence of drug laws. (The last phrase appears intermittently with "its complete lack of prisons," and "its devotion to social welfare.") Its compassionate, intelligent population of 783 million hold their civil and political rights very dear, although the wealthy and those in business tend to be viewed with suspicion.

The enormous, liberal government juggles the competing demands of Education, Social Welfare, and the Environment. The average income tax rate is 39%, but much higher for the wealthy. A substantial private sector is dominated by the Automobile Manufacturing industry. Crime is totally unknown. Virgontina's national animal is the cat, which frolics freely in the nation's many lush forests."

Then a third paragraph reflects recent decisions and current issues that your votes have affected, for example:

"Major cities are suffering under water rationing; every product goes through extensive safety-testing by the government; teachers are routinely tested to keep their jobs; euthanasia is legal; the government has started a campaign to crack down on road rage and encourage alternate means of commuting."

Sounds like fun, huh? Go to NationStates and try creating your own utopia.


click here for permalink April 21, 2009

Once again I've succeeded in spending an entire four-day weekend on random sewing and derailed organizational projects of the sort that inevitably leave my apartment less organized than when I started. At least I didn't waste a holiday weekend (for some reason, that always seems worse). It wasn't one of the many arcane British Columbian holidays that still manage to take me by surprise even though I've been living here for 12 years.

dress patternFor a while now, all my weekends have been four-day weekends. At first, I was certain that the boredom (to say nothing of reduced income) would force me to find a second job immediately, the better to avoid cabin fever and the ugly domestic bickering and territoriality that can result from two people spending every waking moment together in a very small apartment.

Unfortunately, finding a job for a fixed two days a week isn't as easy as I might have thought and it's probably getting harder by the day, now that the economy is doing whatever it's doing. My second thought was that I would eventually get better at managing all this excess of time off — but no, most of the time I end up sitting here on Tuesday nights staring at my computer and wondering what the fuck I did for four days.

This past weekend started out well with a trip to the fabric store; I bought two kinds of fabric in cool spring colors and even remembered to buy matching thread for one of them (I knew I had matching thread for the other one at home — but more on that later). After that, I went to the library and my favorite thrift store, then I came home and did a bunch of laundry. For a Virgo, that's pretty much a perfect day.

Sunday and Monday are a total blur. Some of the time I spent sewing. I made something that I hadn't planned on making but there was a row of tables full of pre-cut samples near the cash register and I couldn't resist picking up a piece of dark brown fabric that looked like it would be perfect for making a sort of 40s-style pencil skirt. And, in fact, it was — but do I need another brown skirt — one that doesn't promise to be remotely warm weather-friendly? No. I also spent about 12 hours listening to the audio book of Blindness by Jose Saramago, which was interesting. I haven't read a novel in ages but I remembered a friend raving about it last year (before the movie came out) so when I saw it at the library I picked it up.

blindness Considering that this was also the first novel I've read as an audio book, it was probably an unusual choice. It also happens to be a translation (from Portuguese) by a writer who is apparently known for being "challenging in narrative technique," as The Houston Chronicle put it. "Saramago switches tenses and points of view, his grammar is idiosyncratic, he frequently makes authorial asides, and he's partial to page-long sentences encompassing various perspectives and time frames. But he's so dexterous in his literary machinations that the pieces come together into an existential jigsaw puzzle."

Here's an excerpt from the first page of the book:

"The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called. The motorists kept an impatient foot on the clutch, leaving their cars at the ready, advancing, retreating like nervous horses that can sense the whiplash about to be inflicted. The pedestrians have just finished crossing but the sign allowing the cars to go will be delayed for some seconds, some people maintain that this delay, while apparently so insignificant, has only to be multiplied by the thousands of traffic lights that exist in the city and by the successive changes of their three colours to produce one of the most serious causes of traffic jams or bottlenecks, to use the more current term. The green light came on at last, the cars moved off briskly, but then it became clear that not all of them were equally quick off the mark. The car at the head of the middle lane has stopped, there must be some mechanical fault, a loose accelerator pedal, a gear lever that has stuck, problem with the suspension, jammed brakes, breakdown in the electric circuit, unless he has simply run out of gas, it would not be the first time such a thing has happened. The next group of pedestrians to gather at the crossing see the driver of the stationary car wave his arms behind the windshield, while the cars behind him frantically sound their horns. Some drivers have already got out of their cars, prepared to push the stranded vehicle to a spot where it will not hold up the traffic, they beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head in their direction, first to one side then the other, he is clearly shouting something, to judge by the movements of his mouth he appears to be repeating some words, not one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind." —

Creepy, huh? Dexterously so, even. The audio book was good but it definitely doesn't convey that level of tension, vulnerability and suspense. I can just imagine, in the treatment of later scenes, that the book would do a much better job of submerging the reader in his characters' isolation as they grope their way through the city, an environment that is potentially lethal to its blind inhabitants but, at the same time, devastated by them. The narrator Jonathan Davis does an excellent job, though, especially in the way he conveys the voices of the characters so distinctively. I gather this is not something you get from reading the book, which eschews traditional indicators like punctuation and paragraphs.

Fortunately, I never feel like I'm missing anything by listening to non-fiction audio books as opposed to reading them — quite the contrary — in some cases, like The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein or anything by Simon Winchester or Bill Bryson, the authors' voices unquestionably contribute a whole new dimension to the experience of listening that can't be gotten from reading. Then there are the many excellent books by Noam Chomsky which it shames me to admit that I would probably not have read half as many of, had I not been able to listen to them on CD. Same goes double for Jared Diamond.

dark sideThe Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer, which I finished reading last weekend, is another great example. Even though the book is about politics, legal machinations and torture — topics that I can imagine being dry or hard to persevere through in lesser hands — it was thoroughly engrossing, although I did feel like the author took greater pains than necessary to appear even-handed. Anyone who would be turned off by an "anti-Bush administration bias" won't make it past the title. After that, I would think the gloves can come off.

So today I started making one of the dresses for which I purchased that spring-colored fabric on Saturday but, of course, it turned out that I had matching thread in quite a bit less quantity than I had thought, so I was obliged to make another trip to the fabric store. It's only open till 5:15 and is therefore out of the question on any day that I'm working. It worked out well, though, because I ended up browsing through the sale fabrics and finding three more, all definitely warm-weather appropriate, and I figure that should be enough to keep me occupied for at least a couple more excessively long weekends.


click here for permalink April 11, 2009

Oak Creek CanyonI was eight years old when my mother, my grandmother and I moved from Seattle to Arizona in a 1963 Bluebird school bus. No, it wasn't big and yellow and filled with bench seats — not when we were finished with it anyway. In those days, they called them "converted" but I guess these days you could say it was modded — or maybe pimped.

We had been shooting for Santa Fe but, when the combination of late summer heat, dust storms and extremes in altitude finally got the better of the Bluebird, we had made it to just within towing distance of Sedona. We ended up having to chill at a campground for a while but, after braving the dizzying switchbacks down Route 89A through the Oak Creek Canyon, a few days' rest were more than welcome. The final push that brought us to Sedona's outskirts had been harrowing to say the least.

SedonaOnce we were all set up at the campground, my mother and I took a long walk up the hill to the convenience store; at the crest of the main highway that ran through town, that Circle K stood like a beacon of civilization. Back in 1981, there wasn't much more to Sedona than our campground at one end and the Circle K at the other. While my mother ducked into the ladies room, I spotted a rickety wire carousel of comic books and was quickly entranced, standing there slowly turning the display stand to study all the covers.

Up until then I had naturally assumed my mother's opinion of comic books ranked somewhere below even Barbie but maybe just above, say, Welcome Back Kotter. So when I turned around to find my mother standing behind me, I was surprised when she told me to pick one — hastening to add, anything but Betty and Veronica.

DazzlerTo mention the name Dazzler in the presence of your average comic book collector, or the proprietor of any respectable retail establishment, is to risk being forcibly ejected from the premises — or at the very least, fixed with a stare of utter contempt and loathing, then shunned. But by eight-year old girl standards, she was by far the most intriguing title character in the Marvel Universe; a heroine who was part Barbie and part Blondie with kick-ass mutant super powers — best of all, she did it all on roller skates.

On the way home, I learned that my mother was anything but adverse to comics; in fact, as a teenager she'd had a collection that kids in the eighties would have killed for — first issues of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and The X-Men among others. It wasn't long before I learned how much her collection would have been worth, had it not been abandoned by the side of the road in a broken-down VW bus (along with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend) many years ago. (Ah, the sixties...)

X-Men #125Anyway, Dazzler issue #21 kept me entertained for weeks as I read and reread it over and over. I was beside myself with anticipation waiting for the next issue to hit the rack. We ended up staying in Sedona for almost two years, during which time our weekly trip to the Circle K became a ritual, with my mother and I scouring the comic book carousel for new issues of a quickly expanding list of titles, including several of my mother's old favorites from the sixties.

When we moved back to Seattle in 1983, we traded our sparsely stocked gas station for the heretofore undreamed-of abundance of Golden Age Collectibles in the Pike Place Market. Every weekend we would brave the madness of the crowds upstairs and fight our way down two levels to the one store that was always wall-to-wall with teenage boys and grown men with "modded" basement apartments in their parents' homes. Here we would spend hours pouring over the new arrivals wall for our favorite titles, an ever-expanding list that now included Daredevil, Alpha Flight, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and endless varieties of X-Men spin-offs.

Golden Age CollectiblesWe even went to a few conventions, the most daunting of which aimed to attract not just comic book collectors but Star Trek fans and aficionados of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres in general to achieve maximum attendance. There's nothing quite like navigating your way through throngs of homemade Starfleet uniforms and Klingons with their makeup melting under the hot convention center lights as you try to determine which vendor has the best prices on John Byrne-era X-Men back issues.

X-MenYou learned quickly to avoid certain pitfalls, like midnight showings of the original uncut version of Akira and the creepy, matronly old women who cheerily sold their "slash" fan fiction, xeroxed volumes in colorful, discretely hand-typed covers (slash as in Kirk/Spock or Robocop/C3PO). What made it all worthwhile was coming home and emptying all your bags, spreading everything out on the bedroom floor and putting everything in order, seeing which storyline gaps you had managed to fill in and then closing the door and reading issue after issue after issue until you couldn't keep your eyes open any longer.

At the height of my obsession, I dreamed in panels.

By the mid-eighties, comic book collecting was no longer a fringe obsession; it was a "market" which meant that every purchase was an investment. As a matter of course, every new issue went into an acid-free bag with cardboard backing to preserve it in mint condition and guarantee the highest resale value. Even though I never planned on selling them.

X-Men #199At some point in 10th grade I noticed that everyone else in my class was obsessing over SAT scores and college admission brochures. It took some prompting from my family members (I wouldn't quite call it an intervention), but I finally started to think about reconsidering my lifelong career aspiration (movie star). So, was there anything else I could possibly imagine doing for a living?

I had been drawing ever since I was around three or four, instructed and encouraged by my grandmother (who is even more gifted as an artist than she is as a driver) and, over the years I'd been reading comics, I had fallen in love with the entire science fiction/fantasy/comic art world. I idolized the prolific energy and creativity of the genre's luminaries; Barry Windsor-Smith, John Romita, Jr., Frank Frazetta, Bill Sienkiewicz, the aforementioned John Byrne and just about anyone on the cover of Heavy Metal magazine. So, going to art school and studying to become an illustrator seemed like a solid second choice.

DaredevilLong story short, I went to art school. Unfortunately, art students are famously destitute and, despite filling every gap in my class schedule with part-time restaurant and retail jobs, I was no exception. Comics, it turns out, are way down the list on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. My collecting days came to an end around 1991 and, by some strange, cosmic coincidence, it was the same year that Chris Claremont decided to leave Marvel Comics, ending his unmatched 17-year reign as God Emperor Emeritus of the X-Men (his words).

In the early nineties, the comic book industry which had been supported throughout the 20th century by a very small but fiercely loyal demographic, was seized by "market forces" and rocketed to widespread but unsustainable popularity. There was one widely-circulated story about a guy who sold his mint-condition issue of Fantastic Four #1 and bought a Ferrari. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Until recently, I'd had no idea how closely the trajectory of my interest in comics paralleled the market's. This is from a Wikipedia page on the history of comic book collecting:

"From roughly 1985 through 1993, comic book speculation reached its highest peaks. Once aware of this niche market, the mainstream press focused on its potential for making money. Features appeared in newspapers, magazines and television shows detailing how rare, high-demand comics... had sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

This period also saw a corresponding expansion in price guide publications... which helped fuel the speculator boom. Ironically... with hundreds of thousands [of] copies produced of certain issues in the early 90s, the value of these comics has all but disappeared."

Phoenix EndsongI recently learned that Chris Claremont returned in 2000 to govern benevolently over the X-Men (and several spin-offs); as for me, it's only been in the last year that I found myself mysteriously drawn back into the Marvel Universe. I picked up a graphic novel at the library which turned out to be a compilation of ten fairly recent issues of the X-Men. For the first time in over a decade, I could almost imagine picking up the thread again...

I am daunted, however, by the explosion of sub-series' and the parallel yet interconnecting story lines that have grown infinitely more complex since I was last in the loop. I mean really — you can't plot the Scott Summers/Jean Grey family tree without evoking a Moebius, for god's sake — and I do still need to work some of the time.